In her long and wildly acclaimed career, Chita Rivera has played temptresses, murderesses and even, in Kiss of the Spider Woman, an angel of death. Now, thanks to another theatre icon, she's playing the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold. Arthur Laurents' new play, Venecia, starring Rivera, opened at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse Feb. 14.
A gentle comedy based on a hit Argentine play by Jorge Accame (in town to see the show during previews), Venecia, which began previews Feb. 10 for a run through March 11, looks at women in a broken down brothel who all hope for a better life. They get together to help "send" the oldest, blind La Vieja (Rivera), to her dream destination: lovely and haunting Venice, if not on an actual ship, then on a metaphorical one.
Asked how he came up with the idea for the story, Accame told Playbill On-Line (Feb. 16), "I had been working with director Damian Guerra. I'd performed three plays with him, and Venecia would have been the fourth, but he died in 1999. I was planning with him to write something about whores. We did research in our city. After that, though, the plot came a little differently. The prostitute stuff was on one side, and the metaphor of the theatre became very important. Just as the girls `drive' the blind la Vieja in Venecia, theatre drives the audience into magic."
Accame, whose plays include Casa de Piedra and Chingoil Compani, noted that the performance style of Venecia in front of an American audience is markedly different from its execution in Buenos Aires. "The audiences in Argentina are harder, tougher. Here, all the performance [sic] is lighter. It has the seed of a musical here. Yes, it is very humorous in Buenos Aires, and because it is performed in the original language, there are jokes with the words that here you either lose or have to change with another joke. But here it is more explained, more accessible for people."
Directed by Laurents, Venecia includes underscoring and dance music by Andrew Lippa, best known for the Off Broadway Wild Party that played at Manhattan Theatre Club last season. Luis Perez is doing the musical staging. Rivera has appeared in the original productions of such landmark musicals as West Side Story, Bye, Bye Birdie, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Author Laurents' The Time of the Cuckoo had a well-received revival at Lincoln Center last season, but he's best known for penning the books to West Side Story, Gypsy, Do I Hear a Waltz and Hallelujah Baby), as well as the screenplays for "The Turning Point" and "The Way We Were."
Asked how her casting in the play came about, Rivera told journalist Simon Saltzman of TotalTheater.com, "All actors have insecurities, and [Laurents] had to bully me into doing Venecia, but I love my part, and the play... [It's] delicious, romantic and funny."
Rounding out the cast of Venecia at George Street are Paolo Andino, Dana Brooke, Catherine Curtin, Joanna Glushak and Tom Flynn. Designing the show are James Youmans (set), The Best Man's Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes), David Lander (lighting) and Christopher J. Bailey (sound).
For tickets ($24-$44) and information on Venecia at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ, call (732) 246-7717.
George Street began its season with The Spitfire Grill, followed by the premiere of A.R. Gurney's Human Events. Here's the remaining George Street season line-up (as of Feb. 8):
• Harold Pinter's Old Times (March 17-April 15, 2001). Ethan McSweeny, who directed Broadway's revival of The Best Man, will stage Pinter's play. Lisa Harrow, an RSC veteran who starred in Wit Off Broadway and in Pittsburgh, will play Anna. Young director Sweeney, a former associate director at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC and who helmed Master Class last season at George Street, has just been named the company's associate artistic director, starting this season.
• Claudio Lazlo, (April 21-May 20, 2001). Cigdem Onat, who was featured in the Lincoln Center revival of Arthur Laurents' Time of the Cuckoo last season, will star in his brand new play, to be directed by artistic director Saint. Here, she plays a "domineering, passionate actress" whose tumultuous behavior nearly sabotages her most important role.
As for the George Street second stage season, look for an expansion of last year's "Diva Project" to arrive May 9-19, 2001. This year, eight performers - women and men - will offer solo works in "The Diva and Gentle Men Festival," which artistic associate and director of education and outreach Ted Sod is curating.
Plans for the 2001-02 season are also in the nascent stage. Waiting for Tadashi, a play by Velina Hasu Houston that was going to be done this-coming season, will instead arrive a year later. Artistic director Saint is still tentatively slated to direct. Houston had a hit in Los Angeles with her play, Tea. The Kennedy Center honored her for her pieces Asa Ga Kimashita (Morning Has Broken) and The Matsuyama Mirror. Other credits include Kokoro (True Heart), American Dreams, Cultural Lives and Hula Heart. Her Ikebana (Living Flowers) will be produced this fall at CA's Pasadena Playhouse.
Also on tap is the culmination of the Bridge Project, being produced with the Crossroads Theatre (an African-American company next door to George Street) to and L.A.'s Cornerstone Theatre Company. The latter goes into neighborhoods and works with non-performers to create a play that addresses issues affecting the community. We just finished the first year. "It's a huge undertaking," spokesperson Shanks told Playbill On-Line, "involving hundreds, even thousands of people... Their last pieces included The Good Person of New Haven and The Steel Project. The new piece is about New Brunswick, which has strong African-American, Latino, Jewish and Hungarian communities, as well as Rutgers college students and people who've lived here for decades. It's a fascinating process. The working title is `New Brunswick Stories,' and professional playwrights were recently hired to help develop the piece, which we'll produce in 2001-02, possibly as the season opener."
Finally, the George Street Playhouse isn't kidding about its commitment to developing and producing new plays. The company recently named George Ryan as artistic associate to help manage the literary department, and the theatre's 2000-01 season line-up features three world premieres. In announcing the new slate, artistic director David Saint noted that his past two seasons included premieres by Anne Meara (Down the Garden Paths), Allan Knee (Syncopation) and the aforementioned Arthur Laurents (Jolson Sings Again). Meara's play had a run at Off Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre.
- By David Lefkowitz
and Robert Simonson